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STROLL v. JOHNSON

October 7, 2005.

GEORGE A. STROLL, Petitioner
v.
PHILLIP L. JOHNSON, ET AL., Respondents.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHARD CONABOY, Senior District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Background

George A. Stroll, an inmate presently confined at the Rockview State Correctional Institution Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, filed this pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The only Respondent actually named is Warden Phillip Johnson of the State Correctional Institution, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Petitioner's prior place of confinement). Service of the petition was previously ordered.

  Stroll states that he was convicted of first degree murder and criminal conspiracy following a jury trial in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas. He was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment. By way of background, Petitioner and his brother, Gregory Stroll, were convicted of beating their landlord to death with a baseball bat in a dispute about rent.

  Following his conviction, Stroll filed a direct appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court. His appeal asserted the following claims: (1) the trial court erred by permitting the Defendants' statements to be read into evidence; (2) the evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction for first degree murder; (3) the Commonwealth's medical expert should not have been allowed to draw and display in red ink the location of multiple blows to a sketch of the victim's head; (4) a photograph of bloodstained clothing and shoes worn by the Petitioner on the night of the killing was impermissibly allowed into evidence; and (5) the trial court erred by refusing to give the jury an involuntary manslaughter instruction. See Commonwealth v. Stroll, 671 A.2d 773 (Pa. Super 1995) (Table). A petition for allowance of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was denied. See Commonwealth v. Stroll, 682 A.2d 309 (Pa. 1996) (Table).

  Stroll then sought relief pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). His PCRA petition presented two issues of ineffective assistance of counsel: (1) failure to object to the trial court's determination that co-defendant Gregory Stroll's guilty plea to first degree murder was involuntarily made, a determination which deprived Petitioner of entering a guilty plea to third degree murder; and (2) neglecting to object to the terms of the joint plea bargain agreement which coupled guilty pleas of the defendants. The Superior Court affirmed the denial of the PCRA petition. See Commonwealth v. Stroll, 742 A.2d 212 (Pa.Super. 1999) (Table). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the Petitioner's petition for allowance of appeal. See Commonwealth v. Stroll, 747 A.2d 368 (Pa. 1999) (Table).

  Stroll's present habeas corpus petition sets forth the following three claims: (1) the trial court violated the Confrontation Clause by overruling an objection to the admittance of "two mutually accusatory extrajudicial hearsay statements read to the jury";*fn1 (2) the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's finding of guilt; and (3) the trial court erred by refusing to grant Petitioner's request for an involuntary manslaughter jury instruction.

  Discussion

  Standard of Review

  "The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 modified a federal habeas court's role in reviewing state prisoner applications in order to prevent federal habeas `retrials' and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law." Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002). Specifically, when a federal-law issue has been adjudicated on the merits by a state court, the federal court reverses only when the decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the United States Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).*fn2 See generally, Gattis v. Snyder, 278 F.3d 222, 234 (3d Cir. 2002); Moore v. Morton, 255 F.3d 95, 104-05 (3d Cir. 2001). The Court has held that the "contrary to" and "unreasonable application" clauses of § 2254(d)(1) have independent meaning. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-405 (2000). As explicated in Bell, 535 U.S. at 694:
A federal habeas court may issue the writ under the `contrary to' clause if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in our cases, or if it decides a case differently than we have done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. . . . The court may grant relief under the `unreasonable application' clause if the state court correctly identifies the governing legal principle from our decisions but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular case. . . . The focus of the latter inquiry is on whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law is objectively unreasonable. . . .
Furthermore, resolution of factual issues by the state courts are presumed to be correct unless the petitioner shows by clear and convincing evidence that they are not. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

  In summary, the appropriate inquiry for federal district courts in reviewing the merits of § 2254 petitions is whether the state court decisions applied a rule different from the governing law set forth in United States Supreme Court cases, decided the case before them differently than the Supreme Court has done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts, or unreasonably applied Supreme Court governing principles to the facts of the particular case. State court factual findings may be set aside only if rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.

  Confrontation Clause

  Petitioner initially alleges that the Confrontation Clause was violated when the trial court allowed his incriminating statement and one by his brother/co-Defendant to be admitted at trial. This claim is two fold. First, Stroll contends that even though a cautionary instruction was given and his name was redacted when his codefendant's confession was introduced, the admission of that statement violated the standards announced in Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). See Doc. 1, p. 4. He adds that the state courts' determination regarding this issue was an unreasonable application of federal law. Second, because the statements of he and his codefendant were not accurate renditions, their admission should have been precluded. Petitioner asserts that the rendition of the statements read at trial added and then emphasized that he had a specific intent to kill.

  The Respondents argue that a violation of Bruton did not occur because both brothers testified at trial. Furthermore, habeas corpus relief is not warranted because the Pennsylvania Superior Court made a proper determination that the statements were accurate and that any ...


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